August 2014

Publisher: Energy

Steven J. Moss

Multiple corporate monopolies have emerged, thrived, and withered over the last hundred years. Railroads, telegram and telephone services, air transportation, network television and newspapers all had highly lucrative heydays, but were ultimately cut down to size by a combination of government anti-trust activities and new technologies. Today there’s a plethora of transportation, communication, information, and entertainment services, most offered at lower cost or with greater value than what was on the former cartels’ menu.

The societal conversation continues over how to best manage quasi-monopolies, like cable and Internet services. Water utilities are struggling with how to pay for themselves in an era in which reducing consumption is essential to addressing chronic scarcity. But the monopoly sector most ripe for rapid change is the almost a half-trillion dollar electricity sector.

Throughout the U.S. electricity is provided by a mix of municipal, cooperative, and investor-owned utilities (IOUs), each with a lock on delivering large aspects of the service in their home territories. In California the three large IOUs — San Diego Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) — have carved up the lion’s share of the state’s monopoly electricity market. All of them face a business model that’s been buffeted by the rapid policy-driven onsite of renewables and the emergence of other technologies that aren’t as dependent on a large, capital-intensive spoke — fossil fuel or nuclear power plant — and wheels — transmission and distribution — system to operate.

Today, a home or business can install devices to capture sunshine or wind and cope with intermittent power flows by managing the timing of their energy consumption and installing a storage device, which could include harnessing the battery in the electric vehicle parked in the garage. These types of systems may work best when they’re combined at the multiple-neighborhood level, to create a portfolio of resources that can reduce the risk that the failure of one device will have catastrophic outage consequences. The optimal size for a next generation grid may be roughly half the size of San Francisco, a back-to-the-future system that mirrors the more than 100 small service providers that combined more than a century ago to create PG&E.

Institutional change is tricky, though, when it comes to electricity. Although rates are high in California, outside the Central Valley in the summer, household bills are generally modest as a result of the state’s mild climate. There’s solid service reliability, with the IOUs generally doing a fine job restoring post-storm outages. And, thanks to public policies, low-income families are provided substantial subsidies, while the grid has grown increasingly green. Outside San Francisco — and post natural gas-disaster San Bruno — where tilting at PG&E is an ideological battle rather than an economic one, these characteristics serve to mute the potential for widespread ratepayer revolt, and encourage consumer advocacy groups to protect the existing monopoly system.

Yet without change, electricity service is poised to get much more expensive, and probably less green. Renewable intermittency — production drops when the sun doesn’t shine — doesn’t match with the current system, creating gaps that could be plugged by costly and polluting fossil fuel power plants, eroding much of the environmental gains achieved over the past decade. Despite substantial technological innovation which should spur price competition, utility rates are consistently rising, in part because two competing paradigms — New Age renewables, and Industrial Age fossil fuels — are being simultaneously pursued for political reasons.

The seeds of a solution are in creating more knowledge. Consumers are almost entirely ignorant of how the timing of their electricity use influences costs. Electricity rates don’t reflect the underlying expense — to the environment or grid — of providing service in a given time and place. Since price-based feedback to the IOUs is significantly muted, the monopolies operate as if demand is largely immune to change, and must be met by increasing amounts of generation to ensure reliability.

The pathways we take as the grid wobbles in the face of renewable disruption will determine how much we pay, out of our pockets, and through dirtier air, for the next few decades. Fortunately, there’s a ready way to remold the monopoly electric utility industry: get the prices right. If rates reflected the true costs of service — including greenhouse gas and polluting air emissions — consumers and businesses would take action to change their consumption patterns, aided by high technology companies eager to solve profitable problems. The Internet of Things would become the Energy System of Things, with renewables, storage, and a host of communicating devices connected to optimize energy use in an environmental sustainable way.

Offering transparent electricity prices won’t solve all of the grid’s challenges. But not doing so walls off essential innovation. Renewables and emerging technologies, combined with clever tariffs, could help ensure that California never builds another fossil fuel power plant. The state can protect low-income households from onerous electricity bills, by directly paying for energy efficiency investments, or providing bill credits. A small is beautiful ethos can emerge to rival the large, reliable, monopolies in providing high-quality services. If we get the prices right.

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